Lawyers and judges 'Walk to the Hill' for civil legal aid funding

Issue February 2014

More than 500 lawyers participated in the 15th annual Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid in the Great Hall of the State House on Jan. 30. The Massachusetts Bar Association, the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC) and the Boston Bar Association asked participants to urge their legislators to support increased state funding for civil legal aid.

The event took place one week after Gov. Deval L. Patrick recommended $14 million for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) in his fiscal year 2015 budget proposal. MLAC, which is the largest single funding source for civil legal aid in Massachusetts, received a $13 million appropriation from the state this fiscal year.

An EJC press release noted that "programs have been struggling to meet demand as other funding sources have dried up in recent years." For example, the Interest on Lawyers' Trust Accounts Program (IOLTA) is expected to experience an 85 percent drop in funding in fiscal yearl 2014 ($2.6 million) from where it was in fiscal year 2008 ($17 million).The EJC also noted that "MLAC has cut grants to the 16 legal aid programs it funds by 51 percent since fiscal year 2008."

Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland of the Supreme Judicial Court joined his fellow members of the legal community in calling on lawmakers to increase legal aid funding. "We are here to help balance the scales of justice," he said.

The goal of this year's Walk to the Hill is to increase state funding for organizations that provide advice and representation to low-income residents facing critical civil legal issues such as eviction and foreclosure, child custody and support issues, denial of health care coverage, unemployment benefits appeals, domestic violence and elder abuse.

The speaking program also featured Massachusetts Bar Association President Douglas K. Sheff, and Boston Bar Association President Paul T. Dacier, who both called on the legislature to increase state funding for civil legal aid.

"Legal aid is not a lawyers' issue, it's a fairness issue," said Sheff. "The governor's proposal of $1 million in increased funding for MLAC is a step in the right direction, but it's still inadequate to meet the needs in our commonwealth. Without the full $17 million for MLAC, thousands of our citizens could face life-changing hardships involving their housing, their jobs and their health, among others, without the vital lifeline that legal aid provides."

Malden resident Charlene Julce also spoke about how legal aid helped restore her dream of home ownership after she was the victim of a predatory loan and an illegal foreclosure action.

"There is simply no way my family and I could have figured out how to keep our home without the help of Greater Boston Legal Services," said Julce. "The notices from our bank were complicated and we didn't even know what our options were for help. My family might be facing homelessness today if it weren't for the civil legal aid assistance we received."

The walk was co-sponsored by the Equal Justice Coalition, Massachusetts Bar Association, Boston Bar Association and many local and specialty bar associations. Attorneys from several Boston-area law firms and organizations participated.